After winning a $1 million global teaching prize for his work at a school in India, Ranjitsinh Disale came to the United States for several months as a Fulbright Scholar. He left the country feeling disheartened with what he deemed to be a lack of respect for teachers.
Disdale, the 2020 winner of the Varkey Foundation’s Global Teacher Prize, toured 10 schools and talked to many educators and policymakers while working on his Fulbright project at the University of Arizona last fall. His focus was designing curriculum about global conflict and peace, but while there, he took on a side project: pushing state and federal lawmakers to introduce legislation or a resolution that emphasizes respect for the teaching profession.
Education Week spoke to Disdale about his experience in the United States, how teaching here compares to teaching in India, and what he heard from lawmakers. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
I spent around 120 hours in your schools talking to principals, students, teachers, parents. I met superintendents. I went to your elementary schools, high schools, and junior high schools. And I realized that teachers in the U.S. are not respected.
Even though it is said that, “We respect teachers,"—even your first lady is a teacher and the secretary [of education] is a teacher—on the ground, the reality is something different. This profession is not being respected by society. [Teachers] are not paid well. But it’s not always financial. If teachers feel that they are respected, they will try to live in the small amount of money they’re getting. Nobody’s recognizing their work.
Even being a teacher is a less prestigious job in the U.S. because currently, you have degraded the criteria for being a teacher. Earlier, you had to have that certification. But during COVID, many teachers left your classrooms—they were overburdened. Now college students are your teachers.
I met a [state] house representative from Arizona. I met [Democratic U.S.] Congressman Mark Kelly, and I raised that issue with them: Why don’t you have a self-commitment to respect teachers? There should be a law—Every Teacher Deserves Respect Act. It’ll be a self-commitment by the governor or the federal government that we respect teachers.
When I talked to Mark Kelly, he said [passing] a law might be very difficult, but having a resolution is quite an easy thing to do. I said, “OK, I don’t know actually what happens in your country in this context, but there should be some sort of commitment from your country leaders.”
This will be a historic step, that a country—the world’s [most] superpowered country—is committing themselves to respecting teachers. You don’t need money for this. I told him, “I saw in the airport, there is a separate line for your military and veterans. Why can’t we have a line for teachers as well?” This is a symbolic act to show teachers we respect you.
I told him, [lawmakers should] start writing letters to teachers appreciating their work. This is completely missing in your system.
More than half of teachers say they don’t feel like the general public respects them as professionals, according to a nationally representative survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center last year. That’s a dramatic decline from a decade ago—in 2011, less than a quarter didn’t feel respected by the public. Most teachers do feel respected within their school communities, though, and 74 percent said they felt respected by their students’ parents and guardians, the survey found.
I met two superintendents. The superintendent of Gilbert, Ariz., public schools, Shane McCord, was amazing. When I talked to him, he said, “Ranjit, don’t forget—I used to write letters of appreciation and congratulations to my teachers.” I asked him, “Can you name five teachers in your district?” He said yes, and he gave me examples. Others were like, “No, it’s not my job to write letters of appreciation or congratulatory messages to teachers.”
[I met with Arizona state Rep. Jennifer Pawlik], and she said in her last [term], the Arizona state or department decided to invite all the representatives to visit schools and talk to students, talk to teachers and parents and principals, and listen to them. And she said, “Ranjit, only two representatives participated in this program.” And she was one [of them], because she was a teacher for a long time.
I said, “Oh no. That’s the problem.” If leaders are not having respect for teachers, how will the society have that?
Teachers are treated differently in India
In India, we are highly respected in our community, in society. In the U.S., parents can come in the classroom and say, “Hey, don’t teach my kids these things. I don’t like these things.” This is not going to happen in India.
Within the classroom, a teacher will decide what to do and what not to do. That’s where his expertise is. Nobody should tell him, “Hey, you should teach like this.” No. Even parents are not allowed to do that because they are not experts.
The second [reason] why the Indian community respects teachers is because teachers go beyond that classroom relationship. They have very unique relationship bonding with the parents as well. They support the kid outside the classroom.
That’s what’s missing in the U.S. system—when I talked to teachers, they said, “No, we are not allowed to make [personal] connections out of the classrooms beyond the schooling hour. Talking to parents is more professional.” Here in India, sometimes my [students’] parents give me vegetables. “Here, Ranjit, this is for you. Have it for your kid and your wife and your family.” When I returned to India, I had gifts for my students and for their families and parents as well.
Respect for teacher leads to more passion for the job
If any job is not respected, then those employees will not perform better. You should have that self-respect, and teachers, they don’t have that self-respect. It’s a big issue. If I’m not respecting myself, then it means I’m not doing my best. And this will have more consequences on the performance on the teachers and the impact on the students as well.
When I talked to many teachers [in the United States], I asked them, “Why are you there, in this period?” The younger generation of teachers replied, “Ranjit, we are getting money. ... We are here for money.” And those who have had a lot of experience, who are about to retire, they said, “What’s a better job, more than this?”
Passion is missing, because nobody’s respected. Look at me. I’m very passionate because I know my students, my parents, community are respecting me. ... This job is well-protected and well-respected, because we know the importance of teachers. If we respect them, they’ll be doing best—better and better.